by Dan Brown
Phillips Exeter Academy, and the true story behind Dan
In the Spring of 1995, on the campus of
Phillips Exeter Academy, the U.S. Secret Service made a bust...
THE TARGET : A teenage student
flagged by a government computer as being a threat to national
THE CRIME : Sending E-mail to a
friend in which he said he thought President Clinton should be
THE MISTAKE : The same mistake many
Americans make every day...believing that what they say in
E-mail is private.
In the wake of the incident, Dan Brown,
an English teacher at the school, surprised by the government’s
apparent ability to "listen in", began researching the intelligence
community’s access to civilian communication. What he stumbled
across stunned him... an ultra-secret, $12 billion a year
intelligence agency that only 3% of Americans know exists.
This clandestine organization, known as the NSA (jokingly referred
to as No Such Agency), employs over 20,000 code-breakers, analysts,
technicians, and spies and has a 86-acre compound hidden in
Maryland. Founded over half a century ago by President Truman, the
NSA’s technology is unrivaled. They have the ability to monitor all
of our digital communications--cellular phone, FAX, and E-mail. They
are bound by presidential directive to do whatever it takes to
protect our national security... including "snoop" our most private
conversations if necessary.
Brown coaxed two ex-NSA cryptographers to speak to him via anonymous remailers (an E-mail protocol that ensures both parties privacy),
and the cryptographers, each unaware of the other, told identical
stories... incredible accounts of NSA submarines that listened in on
underwater phone cables, of a terrorist attack on the New York Stock
Exchange that never went public, and also of a chilling new NSA
technology--a multi-billion dollar supercomputer capable of
deciphering even the most secure communications. Nonetheless, the
cryptographers sang the praises of the NSA and insisted that
ensuring our nation’s security can only be done at the expense of
"The battle between privacy and security," says
Brown, "has no
clear-cut answers. The stakes are enormous. All I know is that when
I learned the truth about the NSA, I had to write about it."
If he disappears... we’ll know who to blame.
Some surprising facts about your lack of privacy.
In large cities, Americans are
photographed on the average of 20 times a day.
Everything you charge is in a
database that police, among others, can look at.
Supermarkets track what you
purchase and sell the information to direct-mail marketing
Your employer is allowed to read
your E-Mail, and if you use your company’s health insurance
to purchase drugs, your employer has access to that
Government computers scan your
E-Mail for subversive language.
Your cell phone calls can be
intercepted, and your access numbers can be cribbed by
eavesdroppers with police scanners.
You register your whereabouts
every time you use an ATM, credit card, or use EZ PASS at a
You are often being watched when
you visit web sites. Servers know what you’re looking at,
what you download, and how long you stay on a page.
A political candidate found his
career destroyed by a newspaper that published a list of all
the videos he had ever rented.
Most "baby monitors" can be
intercepted 100 feet outside the home.
Intelligence agencies now have
"micro-bots" -- tiny, remote control, electronic "bugs" that
literally can fly into your home and look around without
Anyone with $100 can tap your
A new technology called TEMPEST
can intercept what you are typing on your keypad (from 100
feet away through a cement wall.)
The National Security Agency has
a submarine that can intercept and decipher digital
communications from the RF emissions of underwater phone
NSA secrets, anecdotes, privacy info, and a
surprising look into the future
DIGITAL FORTRESS, the controversial thriller about the ultra-secret
U.S. National Security Agency, spent 15 weeks as the #1 national
bestselling E-book and was inspired by a true event.
"I couldn’t figure out how the
Secret Service knew what these kids were saying in their
Q: A rather startling event inspired you to write
Fortress. Can you elaborate on what happened?
A: A few years ago, I was teaching on the campus of Phillips
Exeter Academy in New Hampshire. One Spring day, unannounced,
the U.S. Secret Service showed up and detained one of our
students claiming he was a threat to national security. As it
turned out, the kid had sent private E-mail to a friend saying
how much he hated President Clinton and how he thought the
president should be shot. The Secret Service came to campus to
make sure the kid wasn’t serious. After some interrogation the
agents decided the student was harmless, and not much came of
it. Nonetheless, the incident really stuck with me. I couldn’t
figure out how the secret service knew what these kids were
saying in their E-mail.
I began doing some research into where organizations like the
Secret Service get their intelligence data, and what I found out
absolutely floored me. I discovered there is an intelligence
agency as large as the CIA... that only about 3% of Americans
It is called the National Security Agency (NSA), and it is home
to the country’s eavesdroppers. The agency functions like an
enormous vacuum cleaner sucking in intelligence data from around
the globe and processing it for subversive material. The NSA’s
super-computers scan E-mail and other digital communiqués
looking for dangerous word combinations like "kill" and
"Clinton" in the same sentence.
The more I learned about this ultra-secret agency and the
fascinating moral issues surrounding national security and
civilian privacy, the more I realized it was a great backdrop
for a novel. That’s when I started writing Digital Fortress.
"The NSA is in charge of waging the information war-- stealing
other people’s secrets while protecting our own."
Q: The NSA sounds fascinating, can you tell me more about it?
A: The NSA was founded at 12:01 on the morning of November 4th,
1952 by President Truman. No note of this event was made in the
Congressional Record. The NSA’s charge was simple--to intercept
and decipher intelligence information from hostile governments
around the globe. Secondly, it was to create the means to enable
secure communications among U.S. military and officials.
Put another way, the NSA is in charge of waging the information
war--stealing other people’s secrets while protecting our own;
they are not only the nation’s code-breakers, but also our
code-writers. Today the agency has a $12 billion annual budget,
about 25,000 employees, and an 86-acre heavily armed compound in
Fort Meade, Maryland. It is home to the world’s most potent
computers as well as some of the most brilliant cryptographers,
mathematicians, technicians, and analysts. Digital Fortress is
about a brilliant female cryptographer who works inside these
"Intelligence analysts joke that the acronym ’NSA’ really stands
for ’No Such Agency.’"
Q: Why have so few people heard of the NSA?
A: In the novel the intelligence analysts joke that the acronym
"NSA" really stands for "No Such Agency" or "Never Say
Anything." Seriously though, the NSA is clandestine because it
has to be. It is responsible for protecting this nation from
some very powerful and hostile forces; often times this involves
practices that civilians might find intrusive or immoral.
The NSA is far more effective if it is immune to the public
scrutiny that most of the other agencies have to endure.
Although not many people have heard of the NSA, that fact is
quickly changing. Certainly those people familiar with the
intelligence community are aware of the NSA’s existence and
general code of conduct. Computer users who are savvy about
issues of privacy in the digital age are also more and more
aware of the NSA’s existence and practices.
The battle for privacy rights in a digital world is starting to
take center stage, and I suspect it will be THE major issue of
the next decade. We can all expect to hear a lot more about the
NSA as the battle surrounding national security and civilian
"We communicated via anonymous remailers such that our
identities remained secret."
Q: How did you get so much information on such a clandestine
A: Much of the data on the NSA is public domain if you know
where to dig. James Bamford wrote a superb exposé of the agency,
and there are a number of former intelligence sources who have
written extensive white-papers on the subject. I was also
fortunate to befriend two former NSA cryptographers while
researching the book. We communicated via anonymous remailers
such that our identities remained secret.
At first, I was surprised with the information they were
sharing, and I suspected, despite their obvious knowledge, that
they were probably not who they said they were. But the more we
spoke, the more I was convinced they were authentic. Neither one
knew about the other, and yet they told almost identical
stories. When I asked why they were sharing intelligence data
with me, the response startled me. One cryptographer put it this
"I am a mathematician, not a politician. The
technologies and practices are necessary, believe me, but their
level of secrecy is dangerous. It breeds distrust. I believe it
is good for everyone that the agency is gradually coming to the
public eye. I am not sharing classified information; the
information I am sharing is already out there, but it is
skillfully buried. I’m only bringing it to the surface."
"There used to be barriers around information. Technology has
Q: Ten years ago we never read about privacy rights, now it is
an enormous issue. Why?
A: Barriers. There used to be barriers around information.
Technology has changed that. It used to be we sent our messages
in sealed envelopes with the U.S. postal service; now we E-mail.
Global corporations used to gather for closed-door meetings; now
they teleconference. Once we sent important documents with
bonded couriers; now we FAX. All of these transfers take place
through a vast network of cables and satellites that is
impossible to keep entirely secure. Technology has made global
communication more efficient, but the down side is that there is
a lot more of each of us floating around out there waiting to be
"ITT and Western Union were under enormous political pressure to
cooperate silently... and they did so."
Q: Does the government really read our E-mail?
A: Government monitoring of civilian communication is something
that has been going on for decades. Even though the public is
widely unaware, government officials and specialists in
privacy-related fields are certainly aware of the practice. The
debate over its ethics is complex because a precedent exists
that intercepting certain E-mail, cellular phone, and FAX
communications can help law-enforcement officials catch
dangerous criminals. The question turns into one of civilian
privacy vs. national security. In the 1950’s the NSA’s then
top-secret Project Shamrock intercepted and scanned all
telegrams sent in or out of the country; ITT and Western Union
were under enormous political pressure to cooperate
silently... and they did so.
Project Shamrock stayed in effect until 1975. Nixon’s
Plan and later Project Minaret further relaxed regulations on
monitoring civilian communications and even activated enormous
watch-lists of U.S. civilians whose communiqués were regularly
tapped. Just recently, of course, the FBI caught the infamous
hacker Jose Ardita by secretly monitoring computer activity at
Harvard University. As you can see, this sort of activity is
"The loopholes are obvious..."
Q: But aren’t there laws against intercepting E-mail?
A: Current laws are shaky at best. The Electronic Communications
Privacy Act (ECPA) provides that personal E-mail cannot be
intercepted while it is in transit. However, once the E-mail is
digitally "stored" it is fair game and officials can legally
gain access. The irony in the law is that E-mail travels by
copying itself from server to server; the moment it is "in
transit" it is also stored on servers across the country.
The loopholes are obvious. It’s hard to prove that unwarranted
monitoring takes place, but most privacy specialists agree that
monitoring is rampant, a point well-taken when you consider the
following: Government Incentive -- Terrorist activity against
the U.S. is on the rise (some from domestic sources), and the
incentive certainly exists to protect national security in
anyway possible. It’s Easy - The technology now exists for the
government to secretly scan enormous quantities of data very
cost effectively. It’s Legal - The current laws are written such
that they do not hinder the intelligence agencies in any real
way from scanning civilian communications for subversive
activity. Historical Precedent - The intelligence community has
a long history of protecting national security through domestic
Operation Shamrock and Minaret are two examples. Daily Proof -
Almost every day there are stories in the news of civilians
arrested for child pornography, embezzlement, drug trade, etc.
These arrests usually hold up in court based on evidence from
intercepted private communications. Officials often have
court-orders when they tap E-mail and phones, but it is not
difficult to imagine time-sensitive crises where court-orders
are not feasible and laws are bent in the name of protecting the
"If I send E-mail that reads, ’Tonight I’m taking out my wife,’
how would you interpret that?"
Q: Most individuals are law-abiding citizens, why should they
care if a government agency might be listening in to their
A: First, there is the obvious moral issue of whether or not we
want to live in an Orwellian society where big brother is
peering in from all sides. But more immediate concerns are those
of abuse and misinterpretation of data. For example, if I send
E-mail that reads, "Tonight I’m taking out my wife," how would
you interpret that? Am I treating my wife to a date, or am I
killing her? Because language is sometimes ambiguous, it runs
the risk of misunderstanding. The results can be disastrous.
"The priest made a single typo that changed his life forever."
Q: Can you give us any "real life" horror stories of instances
of abuse or misinterpretation?
A: Absolutely. There is one I heard recently that has become
somewhat of an urban legend. Although I can’t vouch for the
accuracy of the story, it’s a perfect example of the sorts of
things that we now hear happening all the time. Apparently, last
year a priest from Utah sent E-mail to his sister in Boston. In
his message he mentioned that some local teenagers had stopped
by his church that day and baked him brownies. Hoping to impress
his sister with his technological wizardry, he borrowed the
church’s new digital camera and took a photo of the brownies.
Then he attached the photo to his E-mail and sent it off. Of
course everything should have been fine.
Alas, it was not. In a cruel twist of fate, while typing his
E-mail the priest made a single typo that changed his life
forever. While writing the phrase "teenagers baked brownies",
instead of typing "B" for baked, he missed and hit the letter
"N" (the letter directly next to the "B"), resulting in the
phrase "teenagers naked brownies."
Because he had unknowingly typed the words "naked" and
"teenagers" next to each other in his E-mail, his message was
flagged by a secret government computer scanning for child
pornographers on the Internet. To make matters worse (much
worse) the priest had attached a photo to his E-mail, so his
transmission was flagged top-priority for immediate analysis.
When the task force went to examine the photo, however, they
found that the file was corrupt and could not be opened. All
they knew was that the photo was entitled "Brownies", and it was
sent by a priest who was writing about naked teenagers. They
tracked the priest’s identity through his Internet service
provider and secretly began investigating his church. They found
to their horror that both the Cub Scouts and the Brownies met at
there on a regular basis. They concluded that this priest had
been sending pictures of naked Brownies... a felony. They
"The government is far less intrusive than most forces."
Q: Is the government the only force that pries into our lives?
A: Absolutely not. In fact, the government is far less intrusive
than most forces. With the evolution of the personal computer,
small companies and even individuals can now keep track of
enormous databanks. Can you imagine ten years ago your
neighborhood grocer making a note of every single item you as a
customer purchased? Now it happens automatically at the
check-out scanners. If you buy groceries with a credit or debit
card, a detailed record of your personal purchasing preferences
is instantly cataloged. Marketing agencies pay top dollar for
"Even our simplest daily actions are recorded and can come back
to haunt us."
Q: Can you give us other examples of how we are spied on?
A: The list is endless. Aside from the cameras that are trained
on us at all ATM’s, toll-booths, and large department stores,
there is plenty of subtle spying. Sweepstakes are a good
example. If you enter $100,000 dollar sweepstakes, you should be
aware that the company sponsoring the sweepstakes will make ten
times that much selling your personal information to direct-mail
marketing firms. Another example is the ubiquitous "free blood
pressure clinic." Many of these clinics are set up NOT to check
your blood pressure but rather to gather prospecting lists for
The world-wide-web is anything but private. Many computer users
still don’t realize that the web sites they visit will, in many
cases, track their progress through the site--how long a user
stays, what he lingers over, what files he downloads. If you’re
visiting sites on the web that you don’t want anyone to know
you’re visiting, you better think again.
Even our simplest daily actions are recorded and can come back
to haunt us. One of my favorite stories is of a political race
in California in which a candidate was running on a platform of
conservative family values. His challenger simply went to the
man’s local Blockbuster Video and tipped the clerk $100 to print
out a list of every movie the candidate’s family had ever
rented. The list contained some titles that were by no means
Disneyesque. He leaked the list to the papers, and the election
was over before it began.
"Ultimately, the price we pay for national security will be an
almost total loss of privacy."
Q: What’s in store for us in the future, more or less privacy?
A: Less. Every day, civilians have fewer and fewer secrets, and
it’s only going to get worse. The world has become a dangerous
place, and our security is harder to protect. Criminals have
access to the same technology we do. If we want the government
to catch terrorists who use E-mail or cellular phones, we have
to provide a means for them to monitor these types of
There are plenty of very sharp folks who are working hard to
find some happy medium-- key escrow systems that would enable
officials to monitor communications only with a court order--but
despite all the efforts to leave the public some semblance of
secrecy, ultimately the price we pay for national security will
be an almost total loss of privacy.
"Currently, criminals can obtain the necessary level of
anonymity to commit their crimes. That is changing."
Q: Is this death of privacy all bad news?
A: Not entirely. Many people will want my head for saying that,
but if you think about it, most of the bad things that occur in
society happen because people have privacy -- that is to say,
criminals can obtain the necessary level of anonymity to commit
One needs privacy to break the law and get away with it. Child
molesters, terrorists, organized criminals--- they all work in
private. If their communications and daily activities are less
clandestine, they will not last long. Of course, there is the
obvious question of whether or not we trust the law-enforcement
officials who are listening in.
Whether or not we trust those people we’ve elected to watch over
us is a question asked by the antagonist in
custodiet ipsos custodes," he quotes -- "Who will guard the
"Ultimately, privacy will not survive the digital revolution."
Q: Isn’t there any way to protect ourselves from prying eyes?
A: Ultimately, privacy will not survive the digital revolution.
We live in a society experiencing exponential technological
growth. Within the decade, most of our daily activities will be
conducted through our home computers-- paying taxes, voting,
shopping, all of our entertainment, movie-downloads will replace
videos, music downloads will replace CD’s... all of this
personal information will be zipping around between satellites
and through cables...it would be naive to believe that we will
develop some foolproof method of keeping all this information
"The important thing for us to do is to ensure that the death of
privacy is bilateral."
Q: How should we prepare ourselves for the end of privacy?
A: The important thing for us to do is to ensure that the death
of privacy is bilateral--that is, that while snoopers know more
about us, we know more about them. If a supermarket or clinic is
selling our personal information, we should know to whom. If a
web site plans to watch our every move, we should be warned
before we enter the site.
"The death of privacy may have some wonderful side effects we
don’t yet imagine--it may just make us a more moral society..."
Q: The scenario sounds grim. Can you leave us with any words of
A: Sure. The death of privacy may have some wonderful side
effects we don’t yet imagine--it may just make us a more moral
society. If we are more visible to our peers, our behavior as a
society will undoubtedly improve. Think about it... if your
whole town knows when you are on the Internet sneaking a peek at
Lois Lane in her underwear, you might just decide to do
something else... maybe even curl up with a good book.
- Links to the NSA’s official site as well
as other intelligence resources (courtesy of FAS)
N.287 dated 9 May 1996
The Best U.S. Intelligence Web Site
The best Internet site on the American intelligence community is
undoubtedly one run by the
Federation of American Scientists (FAS)
which has been fighting a long battle to declassify secrets that
no longer need to be kept in the Cold War’s aftermath (Project
on Government Secrecy-PGS) and to encourage an overhaul of
intelligence services (Intelligence Reform Project-IRP).
The site offers a lot of striking documents
and pictures. In their pages, Steven Aftergood and John Pike,
leading figures in PGS and IRP, show satellite images (with
resolutions from 10 to 1 meter) of the main buildings housing
American intelligence agencies as well as pictures of the same
premises and maps indicating their exact location.
When the Brown commission published its report on reforms in
American intelligence on March 1 it recommended that the
community’s budget not be disclosed. By cross-checking several
documents and using reverse engineering methods, FAS published a
relatively precise estimate of what is effectively the
community’s budget of around $28 billion (a detailed analysis
with maps and tables is available on
President Bill Clinton indirectly paid tribute to that effort on
April 23 by suggesting that Congress adopt a bill to make the
Drawing on open sources, Pike also drew up a first directory of
160 companies that work for American intelligence (http://www.fas.org/irp/contract.html).
The directory is constantly updated on the web. Recently, FAS
persuaded John Deutch to make the Director of Central
Intelligence’s report for 1994 public and published it in March
on its site (http://www.fas.org/irp/cia94.htm)
In addition, Aftergood publishes a newsletter entitled
Government Bulletin (SG&B) every month. Now in its fifth year,
the publication has produced a number of major scoops ever since
it revealed the existence of an on-going Special Access Program
for the first time in 1991. Named Timber Wind, the project to
build a nuclear-powered engine for a rocket was finally
scrapped. SG&B is currently financed by the
Fund, the CS Fund and several other donors. But it is seeking
fresh funding in order to continue its work.
Is Listening -
An overview of the battle...
Excerpt from the L.A. TIMES
"DEMANDING THE ABILITY TO SNOOP"
By Robert Lee Hotz
TIMES SCIENCE WRITER
Someone Is Listening...
When Charles and Diana discovered millions of people were
reveling in their most intimate telephone calls, the world’s
most public couple had to face the facts of private life in the
In a world of cellular phones, computer networks, electronic
mail and interactive TV, the walls might as well have ears.
With the explosion of such devices, more people and companies --
from banks to department stores -- seem to have more access to
more information that someone wants to keep private. In
response, computer users are devising their own electronic codes
to protect such secrets as corporate records, personal mail or
automated teller transactions.
Historically, the biggest ears have belonged to the federal
government, which has used surveillance techniques designed to
track down criminals and security risks to keep electronic tabs
on subjects ranging from civil rights leaders to citizens making
But, today, federal officials are afraid that advanced
technology, which for almost 50 years has allowed them to
conduct surveillance on a global scale, is about to make such
Now, federal intelligence and law enforcement agencies are
insisting on their right to eavesdrop.
The government is proposing a standardized coding, or
encryption, system that would eliminate eavesdropping by anyone
except the one holder of the code’s key -- the government
To ensure that federal agents and police can continue to wiretap
communications, the National Institute of Standards and
Technology (NIST) is introducing a national electronic code. It
will cover all telephone systems and computer transmissions,
with a built-in back door that police can unlock with a court
order and an electronic key.
White House and FBI officials insist they have no way to force
any company to adopt the new technology. They will not outlaw
other forms of coding, they said.
But experts say a series of regulatory actions involving
Congress, the State Department, the U.S. attorney general,
export licensing restrictions and the purchasing power of the
federal government will effectively force people to use the
The government’s plan has triggered an outcry among computer
users, civil rights groups and others. The American Civil
Liberties Union and groups of computer professionals say the
plan raises major constitutional questions. Federal laws are
designed to limit the government’s ability to wiretap, not
guarantee it, they say.
"Where does the U.S. government get the right to understand
everything that is transmitted?" asked Michel Kabay, director of
education for the National Computer Security Assn. in Carlisle,
Not so many years ago, powerful encryption techniques were the
monopoly of military and intelligence agencies. Over time,
computer experts and corporate cryptographers created codes to
protect their private communications. Some of these scramble
electronic signals so thoroughly that even the supercomputers of
the National Security Agency cannot decipher them. One of the
best codes, called
Pretty Good Privacy, is free and can be
downloaded from computer network libraries around the world --
yet it still contains safeguards that protect its secrets from
Combined with advances in fiber optics and digital
communications, these codes enable people to send electronic
mail, computer files and faxes the government cannot read, and
to make phone calls even the most sophisticated wiretapper
As new technologies converge to form the roadbed of a national
information superhighway, the government faces the prospect of
millions of people around the world communicating in the
absolute privacy of the most secure codes science can devise.
At the same time, hundreds of phone companies channel calls
through new digital switches into long-distance fiber-optic
cables where, translated into light-speed laser pulses, they may
elude interception more easily. Dozens of other companies are
organizing global wireless digital networks to send phone calls,
faxes and computer files over the airwaves to people no matter
where they are or how often they move.
Given all this, NIST officials say the new code, called
Skipjack, is the government’s attempt to strike a balance
between personal privacy and public safety.
They say it will protect people from illicit eavesdropping,
while allowing an authorized government agent to unlock any
scrambled call or encrypted computer message. It could be
incorporated into virtually every computer modem, cellular phone
and telecommunications system manufactured in the United States.
Designed by the National Security Agency, which conducts most of
the country’s communications surveillance, the code is one facet
of an ambitious government blueprint for the new information
But critics say the code is just one of several steps by federal
law enforcement groups and intelligence agencies to vastly
expand their ability to monitor all telecommunications and to
access computer databases.
Federal officials acknowledge that they are even considering the
idea that foreign governments should be given the keys to unlock
long-distance calls, faxes and computer transmissions from the
United States. An international agency, supervised by
Nations or Interpol, might be asked to hold in trust the keys to
electronic codes, said Clint Brooks, a senior NSA technical
The Skipjack furor pits the White House, the FBI and some of the
government’s most secret agencies against privacy advocates,
cipher experts, business executives and ragtag computer-zoids
who say codes the government cannot break are the only way to
protect the public from the expanding reach of electronic
On the computer networks that link millions of users and
-- a group of encryption specialists --
the federal proposal has stirred fears of an electronic Big
Brother and the potential abuse of power.
"It really is Orwellian when a scheme for surveillance is
described as a proposal for privacy," said Marc Rotenberg,
Washington director of Computer Professionals for Social
Encryption is the art of concealing information in the open by
hiding it in a code. It is older than the alphabet, which is
itself a code that almost everyone knows how to read.
Today, electronic codes conceal trade secrets, protect sensitive
business calls and shelter personal computer mail. They also
scramble pay-per-view cable television programs and protect
electronic credit card transactions.
Everyone who uses an automated teller machine is entrusting
financial secrets to an electronic code that scrambles
transmissions between the automated teller and the bank’s main
computer miles away. One inter-bank network moves $1 trillion
and 1 million messages around the world every day, swaddled in
the protective cocoon of its code.
Nowhere has the demand for privacy grown so urgent as on the
international confederation of computer systems known as the
Internet. There, in a proving ground for the etiquette of
electronic communication, millions of people in dozens of
countries are adopting codes to protect their official business,
swap gossip and exchange personal notes elbow-to-elbow in the
same crowded electronic bazaar.
"People have been defending their own privacy for centuries with
whispers, darkness, envelopes, closed doors, secret handshakes
and couriers," said Eric Hughes, moderator of the
an Internet group that specializes in encryption.
defending privacy with cryptography, with anonymous
mail-forwarding systems, with digital signatures and with
And it’s working. The technology is leaving law enforcement
Federal officials who defend the Skipjack plan say they are
worried about too much privacy in the wrong hands.
"Are we going to let technology repeal this country’s wiretap
laws?" asked James K. Kallstrom, FBI chief of investigative
technology. Under U.S. law, any wiretap not sanctioned by a
court order is a felony.
Federal law enforcement agencies and intelligence groups were
galvanized last fall when AT&T introduced the first inexpensive
mass-market device to scramble phone calls. The scrambler
contains a computer chip that generates an electronic code
unique to each conversation.
FBI officials paled at what they said was the prospect of
racketeers, drug dealers or terrorists being able to find
sophisticated phone scramblers to code and decode calls at the
nearest phone store.
National security analysts and Defense Department officials say
U.S. intelligence agencies find the new generation of computer
encryption techniques especially unsettling. It promises to make
obsolete a multibillion-dollar investment in secret surveillance
facilities and spy satellites.
"We would have the same concerns internationally that law
enforcement would have domestically about uncontrolled
encryption," said Stewart A. Baker, NSA general counsel.
NSA officials are reluctant to discuss their surveillance
operations, but they said they would not want terrorists or
anyone else "targeting the United States" to be able to
communicate in the secrecy provided by unbreakable modern codes.
The Clinton Administration is expected to advise
telecommunications and computer companies this fall to adopt the
Skipjack code as a new national encryption standard used by the
government, the world’s largest computer user, and anyone who
does business with it.
The government also will be spending billions in the next 10
years to promote a public network of telecommunications systems
and computer networks called the National Information
Infrastructure. Any firm that wants to join will have to adopt
the Skipjack code.
Skipjack is being offered to the public embedded in a
tamper-proof, $26 computer circuit called the Clipper Chip. It
is produced by Mykotronx Inc., a computer company in Torrance.
To make it easier for agents to single out the proper
conversation in a stream of signals, every Clipper Chip has its
own electronic identity and broadcasts it in every message it
Federal agents conducting a court-authorized wiretap can
identify the code electronically and then formally request the
special keys that allow an outsider to decipher what the chip
Federal officials say they expect companies to incorporate the
chip into consumer phone scramblers, cellular phones and
"secure" computer modems. Within a few years, FBI officials say,
they expect the Skipjack code to be part of almost every
encryption device available to the average consumer.
Many companies say they are leery of adopting the sophisticated
electronic code, even though it could protect them from foreign
intelligence agencies and competitors seeking their trade
secrets. But AT&T, which has a long history of cooperating with
the government on communications surveillance, has already
agreed to recall the company’s consumer scramblers and refit
them this fall with the new chip.
Even without Skipjack and the Clipper Chip, advanced computers
and electronic databases already have expanded government’s
ability to track and monitor citizens.
Searches of phone records, computer credit files and other
databases are at an all-time high, and court-authorized wiretaps
-- which listened in on 1.7 million phone conversations last
year -- monitor twice as many conversations as a decade ago,
federal records show.
The General Accounting Office says that federal agencies
maintain more than 900 databanks containing billions of personal
records about U.S. citizens.
This type of easy access to electronic information is addictive,
Since the FBI set up its computerized National Criminal
Information Center in 1967, for example, information requests
have grown from 2 million a year to about 438 million last year,
and the criminal justice database itself now encompasses 24
The FBI records system, like computer files at the Internal
Revenue Service, is "routinely" used for unauthorized purposes
by some federal, state and local law enforcement agencies, the
General Accounting Office (GAO) said.
GAO auditors found that some police agencies have used the
system to investigate political opponents. Others have sold FBI
information to companies and private investigators. In Arizona,
a former law enforcement official used it to track down his
estranged girlfriend and kill her, the auditors reported.
What the government can’t find in its own files, it can obtain
from any one of hundreds of marketing firms that specialize in
compiling electronic dossiers on citizens. The FBI is seeking
authority from Congress to obtain those records without
consulting a judge or notifying the individual involved, which
is required now.
Information America, for example, offers data on the location
and profiles of more than 111 million Americans, 80 million
households and 61 million telephone numbers. Another firm
specializes in gay men and lesbians.
A third, a service for doctors called Patient Select, singles
out millions of people with nervous stomachs.
Computer experts say encryption can draw a curtain across such
electronic windows into private life.
In fact, the FBI is planning to encrypt its criminal justice
"Recent years have seen technological developments that diminish
the privacy available to the individual," said Whitfield Diffie,
a pioneering computer scientist who helped invent modern
"Cameras watch us in the stores, X-ray machines
search us at the airport, magnetometers look to see that we are
not stealing from the merchants, and databases record our
actions and transactions.
"Cryptography," he said, "is perhaps alone in its promise to
give us more privacy rather than less."
Inside the company that makes the secret chip.
Scrambling for Privacy
As more people and companies adopt codes to protect their
telephone calls, faxes and computer files, the federal
government has proposed a national encryption standard that will
allow people to protect their privacy while ensuring that law
enforcement agents can still wiretap telecommunications. Here is
how it would work:
When someone using a Skipjack-equipped secure phone calls
another secure phone, chips inside the phone generate a unique
electronic code to scramble the conservation.
The chip also broadcasts a unique identifying serial number.
If a law enforcement agent wants to listen in, he first must
obtain a court order and the get the chip’s serial number from
The agent obtains takes that number to the Treasury Department
and the National Institute of Standards and Technology, which
keep the government’s digital keys to the chip.
The keys are combined to unscramble the conversation. When legal
authorization for the wiretap expires, the keys are destroyed.
Two 80-digit random strings of zeros and ones are selected.
They are factored together to form the chip’s unique key the key
is then split in half.
Each half is paired with the serial number of the chip to form
One is kept by the Treasury Department and the other by the
National Institute of Standards and Technology.
Sources: U.S. National Security Agency, Mykotronx Inc.
Someone Is Listening
To eavesdrop on a telephone conversation, law enforcement agents
must obtain a court order, but they can use other devices, such
as so-called pen registers, that record incoming or outgoing
telephone numbers without actually listening to the calls.
WIRETAP COURT ORDERS
From 1985 through 1991, court-ordered wiretaps resulted in 7,324
convictions and nearly $300 million in fines. A single court
order can involve many telephones. This data includes federal
and state orders, but does not include many national security
1992: 919 *
MONITORING PHONE ACTIVITY
Pen registers are devices that record only the outgoing numbers
dialed on a telephone under surveillance. Below are the number
of pen registers in use, by year.
Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts, U.S. Justice
Department, House Judiciary Committee
Cell Phones Into Ankle Bracelets
Report on how cellular phones will soon be
used by government officials to track your whereabouts
’E911’ Turns Cell Phones into Tracking Devices
by Chris Oakes
Cell phones will be taking on a new
role in 1998, beginning a slow transition to becoming user
tracking devices. The outcome of this shift reassures some, but
has others calling for restrictions on how cell-locating
information can be used.
The impending first phase of the FCC’s rules is aimed at
enabling emergency services personnel to quickly get information
on the location of a cell phone user in the event of a 911 call.
By April, all cellular and personal communications services
providers will have to transmit to 911 operators and other
"public safety answering points" the telephone number and cell
site location of any cell phone making a 911 call.
The aim of the law is to bring to cell phone users the same
automatic-locating capability that now exists with wireline
phones. But while the FCC’s aim is simple on the surface - to
make it easier for medical, fire, and police teams to locate and
respond to callers in distress - the technology is also giving
rise to concerns over the ease with which the digital age and
its wireless accouterments are bringing to tracking individuals.
"The technology is pretty much developing to create a more and
more precise location information. The key question for us is
’what is the legal standard for government access?’" says
Dempsey, senior staff counsel at the
Center for Democracy and
Those seeking restrictions on the use of cell phone tracking
information emphasize that, unlike the stationary wireline
phones, a cell phone is more specifically associated with an
individual and their minute-by-minute location.
In December, the FCC began requiring wireless providers to
automatically patch through any emergency calls made through
their networks. Subscriber or not, bills paid or unpaid, anyone
with a cell phone and a mobile identification number was thus
guaranteed to see their 911 calls completed.
1998 brings new rules into place that take that initial action
much further. By April, emergency service personnel will receive
more than just the call - they’ll also get the originating cell
phone’s telephone number and, more significantly, the location
of the cell site that handled the call.
The FCC’s "Enhanced 911 services" requirements that wireless
providers make this information available is the beginning of a
tracking system that by 2001 will be able to locate a phone
within a 125-meter radius.
To provide this precise location information, Jeffrey Nelson of
the Cellular Telecommunications Industry Association says
different carriers will choose different methods of gathering
location information, but all of them involve detecting the
radio frequencies sent from the phone to service antennas.
Because a phone sends additional signals to other antennas in
addition to the primary one, "triangulation" lets them calculate
the caller’s whereabouts within that multi-antenna region. All
this happens automatically when a cell phone is turned on.
The upshot, Nelson says, is that cellular callers will "be able
to make a call to 911 or the appropriate emergency number
without having to explain where they are." He cites a case in
which a woman stranded in a blizzard, unable to tell where she
was, was located by use of her cell phone. Various systems are
being tested by most providers, he reports, but many are already
working with methods to provide such location information today.
But this tracking issue has privacy advocates seeking preventive
legislation to see that the instant accessibility of the
information to emergency units doesn’t just as easily deliver
the same tracking information to law enforcement agencies - from
local police on up to the FBI.
"The FCC has been in the picture from the 911 perspective," says
Dempsey of the Center for Democracy and Technology.
But to him,
this obvious emergency benefit of E911 necessitates legal action
to draw boundaries around its use by other organizations, namely
That’s where the issue runs into the same waters as the
controversy surrounding the expansion of the Communications
Assistance for Law Enforcement Act (CALEA). That 1994 law was meant to
keep communications companies from letting the advancement of
digital and wireless technology become an obstacle to the
surveillance needs of law enforcement agencies. But
the CDT and
Electronic Frontier Foundation, among others, have argued
that as CALEA undergoes actual implementation (a process that is
still ongoing), the FBI is seeking to expand its surveillance
capabilities by seeking unjust specifications for phone systems’
compliance with the law.
Dempsey wants to see both CALEA and the new E911 requirements be
implemented with clear restrictions on the ability of law
enforcement to tap into personal information on users,
especially their whereabouts at any one time.
With the implementation of E911, Dempsey says that in effect,
"your phone has become an ankle
bracelet. Therefore we are urging the standard for
government access be increased to a full probable cause
standard. [Law enforcement agencies] have to have suspicion
to believe that the person they are targeting is engaged in
Currently, he says, to get a court
order allowing the surveillance of cell phone use, law
enforcement only has to prove that the information sought - not
the individual - is relevant to an ongoing investigation.
"It says to law enforcement
you’ve got to have a link between the person you’re
targeting and the crime at issue," Dempsey says. "It cannot
be a mere fishing expedition."
While the CDT and others seek
beefed-up constitutional restrictions on the ability for law
enforcement to obtain court orders in such cases, the FBI says
the process for obtaining such court orders is already adequate.
"We work under the strict
provisions of the law with regard to our ability to obtain a
court order," said Barry Smith, supervisory special agent in
the FBI’s office of public affairs.
"Law enforcement’s access to
[cell phone data] falls very much within the parameters of
the Fourth Amendment."
He also says that under CALEA, the
call data the FBI seeks does not provide the specific location
of a wireless phone.
The FCC and its E911 requirements are distinct from CALEA, but
because they offer the ultimate form of tracking information -
far more instantly and explicitly than the FBI is seeking in the
implementation of CALEA, E911 may be ripe for access by law
enforcement for non-emergency needs.
As for the distinction between the dispute over CALEA and the
FCC’s E911 services, Smith says the latter has nothing to do
with the FBI. "There’s not any crossover between the two."
But, says Dempsey, when law enforcement serves a court order,
they could get location information through the requirements
established by E911.
Spying in Europe
The Echelon System
ECHELON article From Eurobytes
From London Daily Telegraph
Rumors have abounded for several years of a massive system
designed to intercept virtually all email and fax traffic in the
world and subject it to automated analysis, despite laws in many
nations (including this one) barring such activity. The laws
were circumvented by a mutual pact among five nations. It’s
illegal for the United States to spy on it’s citizens. Likewise
the same for Great Britain. But under the terms of the UKUSA
agreement, Britain spies on Americans and America spies on
British citizens and the two groups trade data. Technically, it
may be legal, but the intent to evade the spirit of the laws
protecting the citizens of those two nations is clear.
The system is called ECHELON, and had been rumored to be in
development since 1947, the result of the UKUSA treaty signed by
the governments of the United States, the United Kingdom,
Canada, Australia and New Zealand.
The purpose of the UKUSA agreement was to create a single vast
global intelligence organization sharing common goals and a
common agenda, spying on the world and sharing the data. The
uniformity of operation is such that NSA operatives from
Meade could work from Menwith Hill to intercept local
communications without either nation having to formally approve
or disclose the interception.
ECHELON intercept station at Menwith Hill, England.
What is ECHELON used for?
In the days of the cold war, ECHELON’s primary purpose was to
keep an eye on the U.S.S.R. In the wake of the fall of the
U.S.S.R. ECHELON justifies it’s continued multi-billion dollar
expense with the claim that it is being used to fight
"terrorism", the catch-all phrase used to justify any and all
abuses of civil rights.
With the exposure of the APEC scandal, however, ECHELON’s
capabilities have come under renewed scrutiny and criticism by
many nations. Although not directly implicated in the bugging of
the Asia Pacific Economic Conference in Seattle, the use of so
many U.S. Intelligence agencies to bug the conference for the
purpose of providing commercial secrets to DNC donors raised the
very real possibility that ECHELON’s all-hearing ears were
prying corporate secrets loose for the advantage of the favored
Given that real terrorists and drug runners would always use
illegal cryptographic methods anyway, the USA led attempt to ban
strong crypto to the general populace seemed geared towards
keeping corporate secrets readable to ECHELON, rather than any
real attempt at crime prevention.
The cover blows off!
Even close allies do not like it when they are being spied on.
Especially if the objective is not law enforcement but corporate
shenanigans to make rich politicians just that much richer. So,
the Civil Liberties Committee of the European Parliament looked
into ECHELON, and officially confirmed it’s existence and
Here is the article that
ran in the London Telegraph
Tuesday 16 December 1997
Spies like US
A European Commission report warns
that the United States has developed an extensive network spying
on European citizens and we should all be worried. Simon Davies
Cooking up a charter for snooping
A GLOBAL electronic spy network that can eavesdrop on every
telephone, email and telex communication around the world will
be officially acknowledged for the first time in a European
Commission report to be delivered this week.
The report -
Assessing the Technologies of Political Control -
was commissioned last year by the Civil Liberties Committee of
the European Parliament. It contains details of a network of
American-controlled intelligence stations on British soil and
around the world, that "routinely and indiscriminately" monitor
countless phone, fax and email messages.
"Within Europe all email
telephone and fax communications are routinely intercepted
by the United States National Security Agency transferring
all target information from the European mainland via the
strategic hub of London then by satellite to Fort Meade in
Maryland via the crucial hub at Menwith Hill in the North
York moors in the UK."
The report confirms for the first
time the existence of the secretive ECHELON system.
Until now, evidence of such astounding technology has been
patchy and anecdotal. But the report - to be discussed on
Thursday by the committee of the office of Science and
Technology Assessment in Luxembourg - confirms that the citizens
of Britain and other European states are subject to an intensity
of surveillance far in excess of that imagined by most
parliaments. Its findings are certain to excite the concern of
"The ECHELON system forms part
of the UKUSA system (Cooking up a charter for snooping) but
unlike many of the electronic spy systems developed during
the Cold War, ECHELON is designed primarily for non-military
targets: governments, organizations and businesses in
virtually every country.
"The ECHELON system works by indiscriminately intercepting
very large quantities of communications and then siphoning
out what is valuable using artificial intelligence aids like
MEMEX to find key words".
According to the report, ECHELON
uses a number of national dictionaries containing key words of
interest to each country.
For more than a decade, former agents of US, British, Canadian
and New Zealand national security agencies have claimed that the
monitoring of electronic communications has become endemic
throughout the world. Rumors have circulated that new
technologies have been developed which have the capability to
search most of the world’s telex, fax and email networks for
"key words". Phone calls, they claim, can be automatically
analyzed for key words.
Former signals intelligence operatives have claimed that spy
bases controlled by America have the ability to search nearly
all data communications for key words. They claim that ECHELON
automatically analyses most email messaging for "precursor" data
which assists intelligence agencies to determine targets.
According to former Canadian Security Establishment agent Mike
Frost, a voice recognition system called Oratory has been used
for some years to intercept diplomatic calls.
The driving force behind the report is
Glyn Ford, Labour MEP for
Greater Manchester East. He believes that the report is crucial
to the future of civil liberties in Europe.
"In the civil liberties committee we spend a great deal of time
debating issues such as free movement, immigration and drugs.
Technology always sits at the centre of these discussions. There
are times in history when technology helps democratize, and
times when it helps centralize. This is a time of
centralization. The justice and home affairs pillar of Europe
has become more powerful without a corresponding strengthening
of civil liberties."
The report recommends a variety of measures for dealing with the
increasing power of the technologies of surveillance being used
at Menwith Hill and other centers. It bluntly advises:
European Parliament should reject proposals from the United
States for making private messages via the global communications
network (Internet) accessible to US intelligence agencies."
The report also urges a fundamental review of the involvement of
the American NSA (National Security Agency) in Europe,
suggesting that their activities be either scaled down, or
become more open and accountable.
Such concerns have been privately expressed by governments and
MEPs since the Cold War, but surveillance has continued to
expand. US intelligence activity in Britain has enjoyed a steady
growth throughout the past two decades. The principal motivation
for this rush of development is the US interest in commercial
espionage. In the Fifties, during the development of the
"special relationship" between America and Britain, one US
institution was singled out for special attention.
The NSA, the
world’s biggest and most powerful signals
intelligence organization, received approval to set up a network
of spy stations throughout Britain. Their role was to provide
military, diplomatic and economic intelligence by intercepting
communications from throughout the Northern Hemisphere.
NSA is one of the shadowiest of the US intelligence
agencies. Until a few years ago, it existence was a secret and
its charter and any mention of its duties are still classified.
However, it does have a Web site (www.nsa.gov:8080) in which it
describes itself as being responsible for the signals
intelligence and communications security activities of the US
One of its bases, Menwith Hill, was to become the biggest spy
station in the world. Its ears - known as radomes - are capable
of listening in to vast chunks of the communications spectrum
throughout Europe and the old Soviet Union.
In its first decade the base sucked data from cables and
microwave links running through a nearby Post Office tower, but
the communications revolutions of the Seventies and Eighties
gave the base a capability that even its architects could
scarcely have been able to imagine. With the creation of
Intelsat and digital telecommunications, Menwith and other
stations developed the capability to eavesdrop on an extensive
scale on fax, telex and voice messages. Then, with the
development of the Internet, electronic mail and electronic
commerce, the listening posts were able to increase their
monitoring capability to eavesdrop on an unprecedented spectrum
of personal and business communications.
This activity has been all but ignored by the UK Parliament.
When Labour MPs raised questions about the activities of the NSA,
the Government invoked secrecy rules. It has been the same for
Glyn Ford hopes that his report may be the first step in a long
road to more openness.
"Some democratically elected body should
surely have a right to know at some level. At the moment that’s
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"COVERT ACTION" QUARTERLY
EXPOSING THE GLOBAL SURVEILLANCE
by Nicky Hager
IN THE LATE 1980S, IN A DECISION
IT PROBABLY REGRETS, THE US PROMPTED NEW ZEALAND TO JOIN A NEW
AND HIGHLY SECRET GLOBAL INTELLIGENCE SYSTEM. HAGER’S
INVESTIGATION INTO IT AND HIS DISCOVERY OF THE ECHELON
DICTIONARY HAS REVEALED ONE OF THE WORLD’S BIGGEST, MOST CLOSELY
HELD INTELLIGENCE PROJECTS. THE SYSTEM ALLOWS SPY AGENCIES TO
MONITOR MOST OF THE WORLD’S TELEPHONE, E-MAIL, AND TELEX
For 40 years,
New Zealand’s largest intelligence agency, the
Government Communications Security Bureau (GCSB) the nation’s
equivalent of the US National Security Agency (NSA) had been
helping its Western allies to spy on countries throughout the
Pacific region, without the knowledge of the New Zealand public
or many of its highest elected officials. What the NSA did not
know is that by the late 1980s, various intelligence staff had
decided these activities had been too secret for too long, and
were providing me with interviews and documents exposing New
Zealand’s intelligence activities. Eventually, more than 50
people who work or have worked in intelligence and related
fields agreed to be interviewed.
The activities they described made it possible to document, from
the South Pacific, some alliance-wide systems and projects which
have been kept secret elsewhere. Of these, by far the most
important is ECHELON.
Designed and coordinated by
NSA, the ECHELON system is used to
intercept ordinary e-mail, fax, telex, and telephone
communications carried over the world’s telecommunications
networks. Unlike many of the electronic spy systems developed
during the Cold War, ECHELON is designed primarily for
non-military targets: governments, organizations, businesses,
and individuals in virtually every country. It potentially
affects every person communicating between (and sometimes
within) countries anywhere in the world.
It is, of course, not a new idea that intelligence organizations
tap into e-mail and other public telecommunications networks.
What was new in the material leaked by the New Zealand
intelligence staff was precise information on where the spying
is done, how the system works, its capabilities and
shortcomings, and many details such as the codenames.
ECHELON system is not designed to eavesdrop on a particular
individual’s e-mail or fax link. Rather, the system works by
indiscriminately intercepting very large quantities of
communications and using computers to identify and extract
messages of interest from the mass of unwanted ones. A chain of
secret interception facilities has been established around the
world to tap into all the major components of the international
telecommunications networks. Some monitor communications
satellites, others land-based communications networks, and
others radio communications. ECHELON links together all these
facilities, providing the US and its allies with the ability to
intercept a large proportion of the communications on the
The computers at each station in the ECHELON
automatically search through the millions of messages
intercepted for ones containing pre-programmed keywords.
Keywords include all the names, localities, subjects, and so on
that might be mentioned. Every word of every message intercepted
at each station gets automatically searched whether or not a
specific telephone number or e-mail address is on the list.
The thousands of simultaneous messages are read in "real time"
as they pour into the station, hour after hour, day after day,
as the computer finds intelligence needles in telecommunications
SOMEONE IS LISTENING
The computers in stations around the globe are known, within the
network, as the ECHELON Dictionaries. Computers that can
automatically search through traffic for keywords have existed since
at least the 1970s, but the ECHELON system was designed by NSA to
interconnect all these computers and allow the stations to function
as components of an integrated whole. The NSA and GCSB are bound
together under the five-nation UKUSA signals intelligence agreement.
The other three partners all with equally obscure names are:
Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) in Britain
Communications Security Establishment (CSE) in Canada
Defense Signals Directorate (DSD) in Australia
The alliance, which grew from cooperative efforts during World War
II to intercept radio transmissions, was formalized into the UKUSA
agreement in 1948 and aimed primarily against the USSR. The five UKUSA agencies are today the largest intelligence organizations in
their respective countries. With much of the world’s business
occurring by fax, e-mail, and phone, spying on these communications
receives the bulk of intelligence resources. For decades before the
introduction of the ECHELON system, the UKUSA allies did
intelligence collection operations for each other, but each agency
usually processed and analyzed the intercept from its own stations.
Under ECHELON, a particular station’s Dictionary computer contains
not only its parent agency’s chosen keywords, but also has lists
entered in for other agencies. In New Zealand’s satellite
interception station at Waihopai (in the South Island), for example,
the computer has separate search lists for the NSA, GCHQ,
CSE in addition to its own. Whenever the Dictionary encounters a
message containing one of the agencies’ keywords, it automatically
picks it and sends it directly to the headquarters of the agency
concerned. No one in New Zealand screens, or even sees, the
intelligence collected by the New Zealand station for the foreign
agencies. Thus, the stations of the junior UKUSA allies function for
the NSA no differently than if they were overtly NSA-run bases
located on their soil.
The first component of the ECHELON network are stations specifically
targeted on the international telecommunications satellites (Intelsats)
used by the telephone companies of most countries. A ring of
Intelsats is positioned around the world, stationary above the
equator, each serving as a relay station for tens of thousands of
simultaneous phone calls, fax, and e-mail. Five UKUSA stations have
been established to intercept the communications carried by the
ECHELON Station in
The British GCHQ station is located at the top of high cliffs above
the sea at Morwenstow in Cornwall. Satellite dishes beside sprawling
operations buildings point toward Intelsats above the Atlantic,
Europe, and, inclined almost to the horizon, the Indian Ocean. An
NSA station at Sugar Grove, located 250 kilometers southwest of
Washington, DC, in the mountains of West Virginia, covers Atlantic Intelsats transmitting down toward North and South America. Another
NSA station is in Washington State, 200 kilometers southwest of
Seattle, inside the Army’s Yakima Firing Center. Its satellite
dishes point out toward the Pacific Intelsats and to the east. *1
The job of intercepting Pacific Intelsat communications that cannot
be intercepted at Yakima went to New Zealand and Australia. Their
South Pacific location helps to ensure global interception. New
Zealand provides the station at Waihopai
(above image) and Australia supplies the
Geraldton station (below image) in West Australia (which targets both Pacific and
Indian Ocean Intelsats). *2
Each of the five stations’ Dictionary computers has a codename to
distinguish it from others in the network. The Yakima station, for
instance, located in desert country between the Saddle Mountains and
Rattlesnake Hills, has the COWBOY Dictionary, while the Waihopai
station has the FLINTLOCK Dictionary. These codenames are recorded
at the beginning of every intercepted message, before it is
transmitted around the ECHELON network, allowing analysts to
recognize at which station the interception occurred.
New Zealand intelligence staff has been closely involved with the
NSA’s Yakima station since 1981, when NSA pushed the GCSB to
contribute to a project targeting Japanese embassy communications.
Since then, all five UKUSA agencies have been responsible for
monitoring diplomatic cables from all Japanese posts within the same
segments of the globe they are assigned for general UKUSA
monitoring.3 Until New Zealand’s integration into ECHELON with the
opening of the Waihopai station in 1989, its share of the Japanese
communications was intercepted at Yakima and sent unprocessed to the
GCSB headquarters in Wellington for decryption, translation, and
writing into UKUSA-format intelligence reports (the NSA provides the
click image to
The next component of the ECHELON system intercepts a range of
satellite communications not carried by Intelsat. In addition to the
UKUSA stations targeting Intelsat satellites, there are another five
or more stations homing in on Russian and other regional
communications satellites. These stations are:
Menwith Hill in
Shoal Bay, outside Darwin in northern Australia
(which targets Indonesian satellites)
Leitrim, just south of Ottawa
in Canada (which appears to intercept Latin American satellites -
Bad Aibling in Germany
Misawa in northern Japan
A group of facilities that tap directly into land-based
telecommunications systems is the final element of the ECHELON
system. Besides satellite and radio, the other main method of
transmitting large quantities of public, business, and government
communications is a combination of water cables under the oceans and
microwave networks over land. Heavy cables, laid across seabeds
between countries, account for much of the world’s international
communications. After they come out of the water and join land-based
microwave networks they are very vulnerable to interception.
microwave networks are made up of chains of microwave towers
relaying messages from hilltop to hilltop (always in line of sight)
across the countryside. These networks shunt large quantities of
communications across a country. Interception of them gives access
to international undersea communications (once they surface) and to
international communication trunk lines across continents. They are
also an obvious target for large-scale interception of domestic
Because the facilities required to intercept radio and satellite
communications use large aerials and dishes that are difficult to
hide for too long, that network is reasonably well documented. But
all that is required to intercept land-based communication networks
is a building situated along the microwave route or a hidden cable
running underground from the legitimate network into some anonymous
building, possibly far removed. Although it sounds technically very
difficult, microwave interception from space by United States spy
satellites also occurs.4 The worldwide network of facilities to
intercept these communications is largely undocumented, and because
New Zealand’s GCSB does not participate in this type of
interception, my inside sources could not help either.
NO ONE IS SAFE
FROM A MICROWAVE
A 1994 exposé of the Canadian UKUSA agency,
Spyworld, co-authored by
one of its former staff, Mike Frost, gave the first insights into
how a lot of foreign microwave interception is done (see p. 18). It
described UKUSA "embassy collection" operations, where sophisticated
receivers and processors are secretly transported to their
countries’ overseas embassies in diplomatic bags and used to monitor
various communications in foreign capitals. *5
Since most countries’ microwave networks converge on the capital
city, embassy buildings can be an ideal site. Protected by
diplomatic privilege, they allow interception in the heart of the
target country. *6 The Canadian embassy collection was requested by
the NSA to fill gaps in the American and British embassy collection
operations, which were still occurring in many capitals around the
world when Frost left the CSE in 1990. Separate sources in Australia
have revealed that the DSD also engages in embassy collection.
the territory of UKUSA nations, the interception of land-based
telecommunications appears to be done at special secret intelligence
facilities. The US, UK, and Canada are geographically well placed to
intercept the large amounts of the world’s communications that cross
The only public reference to the Dictionary system anywhere in the
world was in relation to one of these facilities, run by the GCHQ in
central London. In 1991, a former British GCHQ official spoke
anonymously to Granada Television’s World in Action about the
agency’s abuses of power. He told the program about an anonymous red
brick building at 8 Palmer Street where GCHQ secretly intercepts
every telex which passes into, out of, or through London, feeding
them into powerful computers with a program known as "Dictionary."
The operation, he explained, is staffed by carefully vetted British
"It’s nothing to do with national security. It’s
because it’s not legal to take every single telex. And they take
everything: the embassies, all the business deals, even the birthday
greetings, they take everything. They feed it into the Dictionary."
What the documentary did not reveal is that Dictionary is not
just a British system; it is UKUSA-wide.
Similarly, British researcher Duncan Campbell has described how the
US Menwith Hill station in Britain taps directly into the British
Telecom microwave network, which has actually been designed with
several major microwave links converging on an isolated tower
connected underground into the station. 9
The NSA Menwith Hill station, with 22 satellite terminals and more
than 4.9 acres of buildings, is undoubtedly the largest and most
powerful in the UKUSA network. Located in northern England, several
thousand kilometers from the Persian Gulf, it was awarded the NSA’s
"Station of the Year" prize for 1991 after its role in the Gulf War.
Menwith Hill assists in the interception of microwave communications
in another way as well, by serving as a ground station for US
electronic spy satellites. These intercept microwave trunk lines and
short range communications such as military radios and walkie
Other ground stations where the satellites’ information is
fed into the global network are Pine Gap
(click above images) run by the CIA near Alice
Springs in central Australia and the Bad Aibling station in Germany.
*10 Among them, the various stations and operations making up the
ECHELON network tap into all the main components of the world’s
telecommunications networks. All of them, including a separate
network of stations that intercepts long distance radio
communications, have their own Dictionary computers connected into
In the early 1990s, opponents of the Menwith Hill station obtained
large quantities of internal documents from the facility. Among the
papers was a reference to an NSA computer system called Platform.
The integration of all the UKUSA station computers into ECHELON
probably occurred with the introduction of this system in the early
1980s. James Bamford wrote at that time about a new worldwide NSA
computer network codenamed Platform,
"which will tie together 52
separate computer systems used throughout the world. Focal point, or
`host environment,’ for the massive network will be the NSA
headquarters at Fort Meade. Among those included in Platform will be
the British SIGINT organization, GCHQ."
LOOKING IN THE
The Dictionary computers are connected via
highly encrypted UKUSA
communications that link back to computer data bases in the five
agency headquarters. This is where all the intercepted messages
selected by the Dictionaries end up. Each morning the specially
"indoctrinated" signals intelligence analysts in Washington,
Ottawa, Cheltenham, Canberra, and Wellington log on at their computer
terminals and enter the Dictionary system. After keying in their
security passwords, they reach a directory that lists the different
categories of intercept available in the data bases, each with a
For instance, 1911 might be Japanese diplomatic
cables from Latin America (handled by the Canadian CSE), 3848 might
be political communications from and about Nigeria, and 8182 might
be any messages about distribution of encryption technology.
They select their subject category, get a "search result" showing
how many messages have been caught in the ECHELON net on that
subject, and then the day’s work begins. Analysts scroll through
screen after screen of intercepted faxes, e-mail messages, etc. and,
whenever a message appears worth reporting on, they select it from
the rest to work on. If it is not in English, it is translated and
then written into the standard format of intelligence reports
produced anywhere within the UKUSA network either in entirety as a
"report," or as a summary or "gist."
A highly organized system has been developed to control what is
being searched for by each station and who can have access to it.
This is at the heart of ECHELON operations and works as follows.
The individual station’s Dictionary computers do not simply have a
long list of keywords to search for. And they do not send all the
information into some huge database that participating agencies can
dip into as they wish. It is much more controlled.
The search lists are organized into the same categories, referred to
by the four digit numbers. Each agency decides its own categories
according to its responsibilities for producing intelligence for the
network. For GCSB, this means South Pacific governments, Japanese
diplomatic, Russian Antarctic activities, and so on.
The agency then works out about 10 to 50 keywords for selection in
each category. The keywords include such things as names of people,
ships, organizations, country names, and subject names. They also
include the known telex and fax numbers and Internet addresses of
any individuals, businesses, organizations, and government offices
that are targets. These are generally written as part of the message
text and so are easily recognized by the Dictionary computers.
The agencies also specify combinations of keywords to help sift out
communications of interest. For example, they might search for
diplomatic cables containing both the words "Santiago" and "aid," or
cables containing the word "Santiago" but not "consul" (to avoid the
masses of routine consular communications). It is these sets of
words and numbers (and combinations), under a particular category,
that get placed in the Dictionary computers. (Staff in the five
agencies called Dictionary Managers enter and update the keyword
search lists for each agency.)
The whole system, devised by the NSA, has been adopted completely by
the other agencies. The Dictionary computers search through all the
incoming messages and, whenever they encounter one with any of the
agencies’ keywords, they select it. At the same time, the computer
automatically notes technical details such as the time and place of
interception on the piece of intercept so that analysts reading it,
in whichever agency it is going to, know where it came from, and
what it is.
Finally, the computer writes the
four-digit code (for the category with the keywords in that message)
at the bottom of the message’s text. This is important. It means
that when all the intercepted messages end up together in the
database at one of the agency headquarters, the messages on a
particular subject can be located again. Later, when the analyst
using the Dictionary system selects the four- digit code for the
category he or she wants, the computer simply searches through all
the messages in the database for the ones which have been tagged
with that number.
This system is very effective for controlling which agencies can get
what from the global network because each agency only gets the
intelligence out of the ECHELON system from its own numbers. It does
not have any access to the raw intelligence coming out of the system
to the other agencies. For example, although most of the GCSB’s
intelligence production is primarily to serve the UKUSA alliance,
New Zealand does not have access to the whole ECHELON network. The
access it does have is strictly controlled. A New Zealand
intelligence officer explained:
"The agencies can all apply for
numbers on each other’s Dictionaries. The hardest to deal with
are the Americans. ... [There are] more hoops to jump through,
unless it is in their interest, in which case they’ll do it for
There is only one agency which, by
virtue of its size and role within the alliance, will have access to
the full potential of the ECHELON system the agency that set it up.
What is the system used for? Anyone listening to official
"discussion" of intelligence could be forgiven for thinking that,
since the end of the Cold War, the key targets of the massive UKUSA
intelligence machine are terrorism, weapons proliferation, and
The idea that economic intelligence has
become very important, in particular, has been carefully cultivated
by intelligence agencies intent on preserving their post-Cold War
budgets. It has become an article of faith in much discussion of
intelligence. However, I have found no evidence that these are now
the primary concerns of organizations such as NSA.
INTELLIGENCE, SAME MISSION
A different story emerges after examining very detailed information
I have been given about the intelligence New Zealand collects for
the UKUSA allies and detailed descriptions of what is in the
yards-deep intelligence reports New Zealand receives from its four
allies each week. There is quite a lot of intelligence collected
about potential terrorists, and there is quite a lot of economic
intelligence, notably intensive monitoring of all the countries
participating in GATT negotiations. But by far, the main priorities
of the intelligence alliance continue to be political and military
intelligence to assist the larger allies to pursue their interests
around the world. Anyone and anything the particular governments are
concerned about can become a target.
With capabilities so secret and so powerful, almost anything goes.
For example, in June 1992, a group of current "highly placed
intelligence operatives" from the British GCHQ spoke to the
"We feel we can no longer remain silent regarding that
which we regard to be gross malpractice and negligence within the
establishment in which we operate."
They gave as examples GCHQ
interception of three charitable organizations, including Amnesty
International and Christian Aid. As the Observer reported:
"At any time GCHQ is able to home in
on their communications for a routine target request," the
In the case of phone taps the procedure is known as
Mantis. With telexes it is called Mayfly. By keying in a code relating to
World aid, the source was able to demonstrate telex "fixes" on the
"It is then possible to key in a
trigger word which enables us to home in on the telex
communications whenever that word appears," he said. "And we can
read a pre-determined number of characters either side of the
Without actually naming it, this was a
fairly precise description of how the ECHELON Dictionary system
works. Again, what was not revealed in the publicity was that this
is a UKUSA-wide system. The design of ECHELON means that the
interception of these organizations could have occurred anywhere in
the network, at any station where the GCHQ had requested that the
four-digit code covering Third World aid be placed.
Note that these GCHQ officers mentioned that the system was being
used for telephone calls. In New Zealand, ECHELON is used only to
intercept written communications: fax, e-mail, and telex. The
reason, according to intelligence staff, is that the agency does not
have the staff to analyze large quantities of telephone
Mike Frost’s exposé of Canadian "embassy collection" operations
described the NSA computers they used, called Oratory, that can
"listen" to telephone calls and recognize when keywords are spoken.
Just as we can recognize words spoken in all the different tones and
accents we encounter, so too, according to Frost, can these
computers. Telephone calls containing keywords are automatically
extracted from the masses of other calls and recorded digitally on
magnetic tapes for analysts back at agency headquarters.
However, high volume voice recognition
computers will be technically difficult to perfect, and my New
Zealand-based sources could not confirm that this capability exists.
But, if or when it is perfected, the implications would be immense.
It would mean that the UKUSA agencies could use machines to search
through all the international telephone calls in the world, in the
same way that they do written messages. If this equipment exists for
use in embassy collection, it will presumably be used in all the
stations throughout the ECHELON network. It is yet to be confirmed
how extensively telephone communications are being targeted by the
ECHELON stations for the other agencies.
The easiest pickings for the ECHELON system are the individuals,
organizations, and governments that do not use encryption. In New
Zealand’s area, for example, it has proved especially useful against
already vulnerable South Pacific nations which do not use any
coding, even for government communications (all these communications
of New Zealand’s neighbors are supplied, unscreened, to its UKUSA
allies). As a result of the revelations in my book, there is
currently a project under way in the Pacific to promote and supply
publicly available encryption software to vulnerable organizations
such as democracy movements in countries with repressive
governments. This is one practical way of curbing illegitimate uses
of the ECHELON capabilities.
One final comment. All the newspapers, commentators, and "well
placed sources" told the public that New Zealand was cut off from US
intelligence in the mid-1980s. That was entirely untrue. The
intelligence supply to New Zealand did not stop, and instead, the
decade since has been a period of increased integration of New
Zealand into the US system. Virtually everything the equipment,
manuals, ways of operating, jargon, codes, and so on, used in the
GCSB continues to be imported entirely from the larger allies (in
practice, usually the NSA). As with the Australian and Canadian
agencies, most of the priorities continue to come from the US, too.
The main thing that protects these agencies from change is their
secrecy. On the day my book arrived in the book shops, without prior
publicity, there was an all-day meeting of the intelligence
bureaucrats in the prime minister’s department trying to decide if
they could prevent it from being distributed. They eventually
concluded, sensibly, that the political costs were too high. It is
understandable that they were so agitated.
Throughout my research, I have faced official denials or governments
refusing to comment on publicity about intelligence activities.
Given the pervasive atmosphere of secrecy and stonewalling, it is
always hard for the public to judge what is fact, what is
speculation, and what is paranoia. Thus, in uncovering New Zealand’s
role in the NSA-led alliance, my aim was to provide so much detail
about the operations the technical systems, the daily work of
individual staff members, and even the rooms in which they work
inside intelligence facilities that readers could feel confident
that they were getting close to the truth. I hope the information
leaked by intelligence staff in New Zealand about UKUSA and its
systems such as ECHELON will help lead to change.